News Analysis, Irrawaddy Online, Saturday, May 10, 2008
Further Stormy Prospects for Burma
By MIN ZIN
Since security is all about preventing any major threat to human life, the effect of the deadly cyclone that hit Burma last Saturday must be seen from a serious human security perspective. However, the Burmese military junta is far from comprehending such a humane concept.
The tragic toll exacted by Cyclone Nargis could exceed 100,000 deaths and a million homeless, according to a US diplomat. There has been nothing like it in Burmese history, neither during colonial rule nor in the country’s civil war. Some older residents of Rangoon say they have seen nothing like it since the city was severely bombed in World War II.
Many aid agencies worry that disease and starvation will claim thousands more lives in the next few days. World Food Program spokesman Paul Risley said aid agencies normally expect to fly in experts and supplies within 48 hours of a disaster, but nearly a week after the cyclone the Burmese authorities are still refusing to let foreign relief workers in.
Although the regime says it welcomes all forms of international help, in reality it only accepts donations of cash or emergency aid such as medical supplies, food, clothing, generators and shelters. A foreign ministry statement on Friday said: "Myanmar (Burma) is not ready to receive search and rescue teams as well as media teams from foreign countries." The military even deported some aid workers on Wednesday.
The junta said it can deliver foreign aid "by its own labors to the affected areas."According to a reliable source, it was junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe who decided to bar international aid workers, although there had been a signs of initial flexibility from Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein and the foreign ministry.
The source added that Than Shwe believes he has already distributed 5 billion kyat (4.5 million dollars), which he mostly extorted from Burmese businessmen as "donations", and he also has more than US $30 million from international assistance pledges. He then decided to use his own Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) and army to distribute aid.
"What Than Shwe doesn’t understand is that his $4.5 million can only be used for food for 12 days, and all the promised dollars from the world may not come if the international experts are not allowed into the country," said Win Min, a Burmese analyst in Thailand.
Moreover, Burmese businessmen cannot afford to donate much more cash, and overworked Burmese doctors have run out of resources.
Non-government organizations (NGOs) and international non-government organizations (INGOs) within Burma, who had to sign memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with the regime to begin their projects, defining the nature of their work and their areas of operation, have now found themselves restricted by those same MOUs.
Since many NGOs do not have projects in the Irrawaddy delta, they are not allowed to do any aid work in the devastated region since they were not authorized to do so in their MOUs.
According to inside sources, NGOs are now trying to work under the UN's umbrella in order to reach into the delta.
Meanwhile, the military and its thuggish USDA members are intimidating private donors who provide rice and clothing to cyclone victims in the suburban townships of Rangoon. Many donors are reportedly being asked to hand over their relief supplies to local USDA members for them to supervise distribution.
"Instead of protecting the people, the military and its thugs are looting from us," said one businesswoman.
Some sources closed to the military suggest that world leaders—particularly those from China, India and Thailand, and even US President George W Bush—should tackle Than Shwe directly as the junta leader’s subordinates might not be giving him a full picture of the crisis.
This approach appears to be based on a false assumption, however—namely, that dictators allow themselves to be manipulated by their subordinates.
Nor could this approach work in practice. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently spoke directly to Than Shwe and called on him to postpone the constitutional referendum and "focus instead on mobilizing all available resources and capacity for the emergency response efforts."
Than Shwe ignored him and decided to go ahead with the referendum to approve a constitution that will allow the perpetuation of military rule in the country. For Than Shwe, regime security is more vital than human security, although people are dying in massive numbers.
One military source said that Than Shwe stopped the planned dispatch of troops to the disaster zones in the wake of Cyclone Nargis because he wanted them to guarantee the security of the referendum.
The inability of the regime to respond to the cyclone crisis is now self-evident and clearly demonstrates that Burma is a failed state.
The devastation caused by the cyclone will very likely have immense social and political consequences. The limited or inequitable distribution of assistance and outright bullying by government "thugs" could outrage discontented victims and lead to social unrest and even violence.
Whether or not the cyclone disaster could lead to political change in Burma depends on intermediary linkages—the leadership of opposition activists and public influencers such as Buddhist monks— that could connect the disaster to mobilization of discontented groups.
Meanwhile, the international community has done its best to help the people of Burma.
France suggested invoking a UN "responsibility to protect" provision to deliver aid to the country without the regime's approval, although that possibility was rejected in the Security Council by China, Vietnam, South Africa and Russia.
A top US aid official said the US may consider air-dropping supplies for survivors even without permission from the junta, though geopolitical considerations make such action difficult. The junta agreed to allow a single US cargo aircraft to bring in relief supplies, but it isn’t clear how the aid will be distributed.
Eventually, Than Shwe may negotiate with UN aid agencies to conduct limited distribution work inside Burma in order to prevent direct intervention by the US and other western countries. Some inside sources indicate that a few top brass officials, including Gen Thura Shwe Mann, the third most powerful man in the military hierarchy and a former regional commander of the Irrawaddy delta, persuaded Than Shwe to cooperate with the international community.
Of course, Than Shwe will delay permission as long as possible since he likes to show who’s in charge. Meanwhile, people will continue to perish hourly.